There was pandemonium at Saint Francis Catholic Church, Owa-luwa Street, Owo, the headquarters of the Owo Local Government Area of Ondo State as gunmen attacked the church on Sunday.
The attack on the church in Owo, the hometown of the state Governor, Rotimi Akeredolu, came barely a week after the Prelate of the Methodist Church of Nigeria, Bishop Samuel Kanu-Uche, was kidnapped in Abia State by gunmen the priest later identified as Fulani youths.
It was learnt the gunmen, who attacked the Catholic church, arrived at the premises, which is less than 200 metres from the palace of the Olowo of Owo, at 12pm when the Sunday mass was being rounded off.
The PUNCH gathered that worshippers, mostly children and women, were killed in the attack, by gunmen, who were said to have thrown an improvised explosive device before they started shooting sporadically.
A 37-second video posted online showed some of the slain worshippers in a pool of blood.
Workers of the Federal Medical Centre and Saint Louis Hospital, both in Owo, where the dead and the injured were taken to, told one of our correspondents that a total of 35 people were brought in dead.
But the state police command told The PUNCH at 8:30pm that it was still compiling the casualty figure. Also, the church and the state government did not specify the casualty figure.
Both Reuters and Voice of America reported on Sunday that over 50 people were killed in the attack.
However, a resident of the area, who identified himself as Olabamiji, said the attack was carried out by gunmen who disguised as worshippers before entering the church’s premises.
According to him, immediately they entered the church premises, they threw an IED before shooting the congregants.
He said, “We saw them. They didn’t cover their faces. Initially, we thought that they were going into the church for the service, not knowing that they were gunmen. Suddenly, we heard gunshots. They directed the gun at everyone, particularly women and children.
“While the attack lasted, we did not see any security operative to confront the gunmen. We could not even count their number because everybody had to run for safety.”
I was going home, when they struck, it was like a war front — Survivor
One of the survivors, who identified herself as Mary Williams, in an interview with The PUNCH, said she narrowly escaped the attack.
Williams said she attended the service but was outside when the attackers arrived and started shooting sporadically, killing many worshippers.
“The mass ended and I got out to be going home. I was beside the fence of the church when suddenly I heard those sporadic gunshots. Initially, I thought they were armed robbers trying to rob somebody but I later discovered that the heavy sounds of gunshots were inside the church.
“I jumped into a gutter where I hid. It was like we were on a war front the way the gunmen were shooting for about 15minutes. My legs were injured and I was taken to the hospital and discharged.”
The officiating priest at the church, Reverend Father Andrew Abayomi, said the attackers stormed the church when the mass was almost ended.
Abayomi said, “We were about to round off the service. I had even asked people to start leaving when we started hearing gunshots from different angles.
“We hid inside the church, but some people had left when the attack happened. We locked ourselves in the church for 20 minutes. When we heard that they had left, we opened the church and rushed victims to hospitals.”
A health worker on duty at the FMC, Owo, said over 50 people were brought to the hospital, adding that some were dead already while some were still alive.
He said, “They are still bringing people to the hospital; some have been confirmed dead, while some are still breathing.”
A nurse at St. Louis Hospital, Owo, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said many casualties were brought to the hospital.
She said, “A lot of casualties have been brought here, but I can count 12 now that have died. We are still trying to save the lives of the remaining.”
At the FMC Owo, many people were seen crying as they did not know the fate of their relatives who were receiving treatment at the Emergency Department of the hospital.
A doctor at the FMC, on condition of anonymity, said 23 people were brought in dead, adding that 28 people were injured.
He said, “ As at the last count, 23 dead bodies were brought in while 28 sustained various degrees of injuries. Some with light injuries were treated and discharged immediately. That is the situation for now.”
At the St. Louis Catholic Hospital, scores of relatives were seen discussing the incident while some were weeping.
A source in the Olowo palace told one of our correspondents that the whole area was enveloped with tension.
It was learnt that a former chairman of the Obafemi Awolowo University Alumni Association in Owo, Dr J. A. Ajanaku, his wife and one of their daughters were among those killed.
The state Police Public Relations Officer, Mrs Funmilayo Odunlami, said the command had yet to ascertain the cause of the incident and the number of casualties.
“The commissioner of police is on his way to the scene to ascertain the cause of the incident. We have been hearing so many things about it, but I will get back to you.”
The PPRO said the casualty figure was still not available as of 8:30pm when one of our correspondents contacted her again.
She said, “ I have yet to have the casualty figure now but I believe by tomorrow, we are going to issue another statement. As I said, the CP has deployed anti-bomb squad in the scene and they are working there. As I am speaking with you now, the CP has yet to return from Owo on the matter.”
Akeredolu, in a statement on Sunday, expressed shock over the attack.
The governor, in a statement by his Chief Press Secretary, Mr Richard Olatunde, described the attack as satanic and a calculated assault on the people of Owo Kingdom.
The statement read, “It is a black Sunday in Owo. Our hearts are heavy. Our peace and tranquillity have been attacked by the enemies of the people. This is a personal loss; an attack on our dear state.
“I have spoken to the Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Ondo, Most Reverend Jude Arogundade, who is presently on his way to Owo. Similarly, I have had to cut short my party’s national assignment in Abuja and visit Owo immediately.
“This is an unexpected development. I am shocked to say the least. Nevertheless, we shall commit every available resource to hunt down these assailants and make them pay. We shall never bow to the machinations of heartless elements in our resolve to rid our state of criminals.”
In a related development, the Ondo Diocese of the Catholic Church has denied a report that one of its priests was abducted by the attackers.
In a statement by the Director of Social Communications of the church, Rev. Fr. Augustine Ikwu, the church said the report over the whereabouts of Fr. Abayomi was untrue.
The statement read, “ It is Pentecost Sunday, a time every Catholic is expected to be in church to commemorate the solemnity. It is so sad to say that while the Holy
Mass was going on, and men of unknown origin, wielding guns attacked St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church. Many are feared dead and many others injured and the church violated. The identity of the perpetrators remains unknown while the situation has left the community devastated.”
The Nigerian Medical Association, in a statement by its National President, Dr. Uche Ojinmah, called for blood donation for injured victims.
He stated, “We appeal to Nigerians in the affected area of Ondo State to kindly go to the hospitals where the injured are being treated to donate blood to save lives.
“We call on all doctors in Ondo State and the environs to mobilise themselves to participate in the treatment of the injured.”
On its part, the Christian Association of Nigeria described the perpetrators as “possessed, demonic and are not working for the good of the country.”
CAN, in a statement titled, “Owo killing: No explanation for the carnage” by Adebayo Oladeji, Media Assistant to the its President, Rev Dr Samson Ayokunle, stated, “This is sad, wrong, condemnable, outrageous, unacceptable and satanic. There is no explanation for this unprovoked attack and assault on a place of worship. This is raw persecution.
“These people are possessed, demonic and are not working for the good of the country. May God descend heavily on them and fight them mindless agents of Satan from their roots in Jesus’ name.”
This is madness, there is nowhere in the world where gunmen will kill babies, husbands, wives on Pentecost Day – Bishop
In a reaction. the Bishop of Ondo Diocese, Jude Arogundade, who visited the scene of the attack said, “this is madness, all over the world there is nowhere people will plan to come and kill babies, children, husband and wife worshipping on a special day, the Pentecost day
“It’s quite unbelievable that somebody will come and the intention is to kill everybody in that church. Those who were running out were being shot from outside, and those who were inside were being shot inside.
“They threw dynamites to blow off the alter down to the sanctuary. This kind of desecration can only be done by the evil ones. Probably what the world should know is that Nigeria is in war and this kind of war is directed at civilians and I don’t know what point someone is trying to make with this kind of evil but whatever point they intended to make they have not made any point and they have not achieved anything, unfortunately.”
A pan-Yoruba socio-political organisation, Aferenire, also condemned the attack on the church.
The Organising Secretary of the association, Apagun Kole Omololu, in a statement said the incident was a direct attack on the state governor as well as Yoruba land
The statement read, “The massacre in Owo Catholic church is a direct attack on Yoruba land. It is directed at Gov Rotimi Akeredolu for his unflinching support for security in Yoruba land by championing the Amotekun security outfit, his stringent upholding of the anti-open grazing law and for his “big mouth” about Southern cooperation for equity and justice in Nigeria.
“We will not succumb to terrorist threats or attacks; they will not be allowed to bring down our civilisation. We will hunt the killers down. Citizens should not take the law into their hands by attacking innocent northerners; only the terrorists, who are mostly foreign Fulani, should be fished out and finished off by the security forces”
In his reaction, the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), condemned the killing of worshippers at the Catholic church.
According to a statement signed on Sunday by his Special Adviser on Media and Publicity, Femi Adesina, the President said, “No matter what, this country shall never give in to evil and wicked people, and darkness will never overcome light. Nigeria will eventually win.”
The Osun State Governor, Adegboyega Oyetola, in a statement by the state Commissioner for Information and Civic Orientation, Funke Egbemode, said the attack was barbaric, wicked and unprovoked aggression against innocent people.
The Leader of the Yoruba self-determination movement, Ilana Omo Oodua Worldwide, Prof. Banji Akintoye, described the Sunday attack as a declaration of war against the Yoruba people.
The Ilana group’s leader, in a statement by the Communications Secretary of IOOW, Mr Maxwell Adeleye, called on Governor Akeredolu to declare an emergency against the activities of Fulani herdsmen in the state with immediate effect.
The British High Commissioner to Nigeria, Catriona Laing, in a tweet via her official Twitter page @Catrionaliang1 said, “Terrible news today from Owo in Ondo State. I condemn those responsible for this horrific crime. I extend my sympathies to all those affected.”
An All Progressives Congress presidential aspirant, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, described the attack as an attempt to “break our collective spirit and our will to live in peace and with compassion to all regardless of faith.”
The former governor of Lagos State, in a statement by his media team, said the attack would not create disunity, just as he called for action towards extinguishing evil from the country.
Also, the attack was described by the Tinubu Campaign Organisation as an evil that should never have happened to innocent people.
This was contained in a press statement on Sunday signed by the Campaign Organisation’s Director of Media and Communication, Mr Bayo Onanuga.
The Vice President, Professor Yemi Osinbajo, condoled with the families of the victims.
Osinbajo, who is also a presidential aspirant, in a tweet posted on his official handle late Sunday, Osinbajo said “I am saddened by the senseless massacre of innocent people in Owo.
“My deepest condolences go to the families whose hearts are broken and are grasping for answers. We are united in grief and a resolve to defeat the cowards who unleash terror on defenseless people.”
The Speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila, called for immediate action from the government.
Gbajabiamila, who condemned the dastardly act, according to a statement by the Special Adviser to the Speaker on Media and Publicity, Lanre Lasisi, described those behind the attack as “enemies of the state, who must be fished out and dealt with accordingly.”
The Governor of Ekiti State and APC aspirant, Dr Kayode Fayemi, in a statement by his Chief Press Secretary, Yinka Oyebode, described the attack as “vile, barbaric and callous”, adding that “there can never be any justification for the heinous behaviour of the assailants”.
The lawmaker representing Ondo north senatorial district, Ajayi Borofice, in a statement on Sunday also condemned the attack, urging security agencies to arrest and prosecute the attackers.
The apex Igbo Socio-cultural Ohanaeze Ndigbo, condemned the attack, describing it as unprovoked.
Ohanaeze spokesman, Dr Alex Ogbonnia, advised Amotekun to buckle up and defend their people noting that if they wait for federal security their land would be overrun by Fulani terrorists.
Governor Ifeanyi Okowa of Delta State condoled with Akeredolu. . In his condolence message issued on Sunday by his Chief Press Secretary, Mr Olisa Ifeajika, wherein he expressed shock and sadness over the heinous killing of worshippers.
Contacted, a security expert, Akin Adeyi said that the attackers were only responding to the recent Lagos Okada ban with the disguise of a religious coalition.
Adeyi said, “The attack on the Owo Catholic Church is the height that can happen to us, especially among the South-West that has enjoyed relative peace. The attack has not come as a surprise as the signs are everywhere and experts have issued several warnings to the government to brace up and tighten the security of the nation.
“We are already surrounded by them in disguise as Okada riders and other camouflage. Once a state is carrying out an action that negates the interest of these people in another state then other neighbouring states should get prepared.
“The Lagos State has rendered the riders jobless and other states have gone into slumber thinking the possible crisis as a result of this ban will be only the business of Lagos. This is an eye-opener for other surrounding states. The leaders of these attackers will only use their people already on the ground that are familiar with the terrain and geography of the planned area to carry out their attack.
“Some of these motorcyclists allowed to run Okada business are ex-Boko Haramist and today’s attack is just to feel our pulse and see our serious our reaction will be. They will go on the rampage if our reactions do not forestall further attacks.
“Experts and security professionals should gather themselves immediately to study the situation and proffer possible solutions to these problems. These attackers are already among us and not a question of stopping them from coming into the state to attack us.
“The situation is so sad and our leaders are in Abuja for the convention which is their present concern, this is a plan to set the country on religious coalition and choose the church as their target. The attackers might soon disguise a plan to attack the Mosque to set their master plan in motion.”